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DOE commissions $4 million telerobotics virtual reality project to accelerate radioisotope production

by John R. Fischer, Senior Reporter | January 22, 2024
Molecular Imaging
The DOE is funding a $4 million project to create a telerobotic virtual reality solution to accelerate radioisotope production.
Over the next two years, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory will integrate telerobotics and virtual augmented reality into a replacement solution for older technologies currently used in the production of radioisotopes.

With demand rising and outpacing available supplies, scientists and engineers are looking for ways to produce greater amounts of and more varieties of isotopes, but are limited by safety risks and technological deficiencies. For example, chemically separating isotopes from the bulk mass of target materials and impurities requires either the manual glove box approach, in which throughput is limited due to greater radiation exposure risks, or the use of heavily shielded, dedicated ​hot cells, which are made with 1940s mechanical manipulators that require constant maintenance, are expensive, and have limited mechanical capabilities.

Using the $4 million in funding from the Office of Science’s Isotope and Advanced Scientific Computing Research programs, Argonne’s engineers will combine elements of both processes into a teleoperated robotic hot box solution controlled with augmented reality. The virtual reality component will allow users to visualize the hot box from a distance, while advanced software will enable remote control of specially designed robotic components inside the hot box for chemically separating the isotopes, sparing scientists from radiation exposure and eliminating maintenance and mechanical deficiencies.
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“Just by gaining the ability to do the manipulation of the sample from across the room means that we can safely handle samples up to ten times as radioactive without requiring the use of hot cells. This dramatically increases our ability to produce these valuable and necessary isotopes,” said Argonne nuclear physicist Jerry Nolen in a statement.

According to Nolen and his colleagues, the DOE plans to use this new technology to create steady quantities of a variety of isotopes, which it could then potentially sell to hospitals through its Isotope Program.

The augmented reality technology is likely to be based on Nvidia’s Omniverse technology, which allows for 3D workflows to be developed using Universal Scene Description (an open standard). It will consist of an off-the-shelf headset to provide a 3D virtual reality view of the inside of the hot box and paired with optimized models for real-time interaction. Because the project involves working with a radioactive environment, adjustments will be needed to make the augmented reality experience intuitive to the user.

Argonne will be aided in the project by scientists and students from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Morehouse College, and Florida A&M University will also participate in the project.

An advisory team with members from four private companies has also been formed to help ensure rapid transition of the technology being developed from the basic research stage to commercial deployment.

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